Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Berkman showing he's the king of swing
By Jerry Crasnick
Sure, it's a lot of fun reporting to the park when your batting average is outpacing crude oil futures. But for each three-hit game Lance Berkman enjoys today, he knows the inevitable market correction awaits.
On Web sites that traffic in statistical analysis, they call it regression to the mean. In layman's terms, the phenomenon is more commonly known as "gravity."
At the end of May 2007, Berkman was hitting .244 and desperately trying to dig himself out of an early funk. This May, he's batting .389, and it's a shock when he makes an out. So which end of the spectrum is more anxiety-producing? The answer might surprise you.
"I talked to my wife a little bit about this, and it's definitely more stressful getting off to a really good start than a really bad start," Berkman said. "Ordinarily if you go 1-for-4, that's a decent night. When you've been hot and you go 1-for-4, you feel like you've let everybody down."
It's impossible to run out of space on the Internet, but we might be pressing our luck if we chronicled Berkman's superlative-exhausting, scoreboard-exploding siege in its entirety. So here are a few highlights courtesy of the Astros' media relations department:
• Berkman batted .545 (36-for-66) during a 17-game hitting streak before going hitless with three strikeouts in four at-bats in a loss to the Chicago Cubs on Monday night.
• According to Trent McCotter of the Society for American Baseball Research, Berkman recently joined Pete Rose as the second player since 1957 to put together a 31-for-50 stretch.
• Berkman recently became the sixth player since World War II to record 29 hits and seven home runs over a 13-game stretch.
• He went seven games in early May without recording an out in consecutive at-bats. Try wrapping your mind around that one for a moment.
Berkman's tear was the biggest conversation starter in baseball before Jason Giambi's fondness for gold thongs became public knowledge. Berkman's close friend and former Astros teammate, Arizona utility man Chris Burke, recently filled in at first base against Colorado. After Rockies outfielder Matt Holliday reached on a single, the dialogue turned to Chipper Jones and Berkman and their astonishingly hot starts.
"This game is so hard, most guys are just grinding their eyes out to get a knock a night," Burke said. "When big leaguers see other big leaguers make the game look that easy, it's hard not to talk about it. It takes you back to when you were in high school or college and you'd get two or three hits a night. You're like, 'Wait a second, that's not how it works up here.'"
Berkman's binge is fun to watch because of the perception that he's some sort of goofy, chubby-cheeked freak of nature. He has an approachability and a gregarious, Everyman quality that resonate with the average Joe.
Berkman unveiled his current nickname, Big Puma, during some juvenile banter on a Houston radio show. He joked that the name fits him perfectly because Pumas are so "fast, sleek and deadly." He finds it infinitely preferable to "Fat Elvis," the name he was briefly tagged with after an appearance on Dan Patrick's former ESPN Radio show.
"He's probably not a guy you're going to see for the first time and think, 'Man, what a great athlete,"' said Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine. "He's not a guy who glides when he runs or things like that. But he knows how to hit. That's the beauty of this game. There's not one way to get the job done, and there's not one way to identify what makes guys great players."
Still, the perception of Berkman as some sort of ungainly anti-athlete is pure fiction. Berkman has played all three outfield positions in the majors, and Astros manager Cecil Cooper considers him a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman. This year, at age 32, Berkman has busted out his running shoes and stolen eight bases in nine attempts.
Berkman is an avid hunter and fisherman, rides horses, throws a tight spiral with a football, and holds his own on the golf course while playing only a handful of times a year. He looks slightly awkward throwing elbows and launching set shots on the basketball court, but he gets the job done.
"I call him 'Sam Perkins,'" Burke said. "Everything looks the way you'd think, but at the end of it, he competes and he can play a little bit."
At Rice University, where Berkman won the National Player of the Year award in 1997, they still love to tell the "Blue Dart" story. As legend has it, longtime Owls coach Wayne Graham thought it would be a good idea if all his players ran a three-mile loop around Houston's Memorial Park in less than 21 minutes. He told them they'd have to keep trying until they succeeded.
While his roommates spent the summer in training, Berkman ate pizza and played the role of resident sedentary guy. But he also hatched a survival plan: After making a token effort in the first three-mile run -- while his roommates passed the test -- Berkman would run far enough on his second attempt to disappear from view. Once he was shielded from the sight of the coaching staff, his buddies would swing by in a car, pick him up and drive him most of the way around the course.
When race day arrived, Berkman bounded out of his vehicle moments before the scheduled 7 a.m. start. He wore royal blue Rice shorts with matching T-shirt and headband, tennis shoes and no socks, and trash-talked about the whipping he was about to apply. He called himself the "Blue Dart."
Berkman busted out as if spring-loaded, with the expectation that he would croak in a hurry. Then he checked his watch and was astonished to see he'd covered the first mile in a blistering 5:40. He decided to keep pushing, and he continued to lead the pack.
"At about the two-mile marker, a gorilla jumped on my back and the party was over, but I was so close to finishing, I decided to go ahead and try to make this thing," Berkman said. He managed to hang on and wheeze home among the leaders in slightly less than 19 minutes.
Graham initially accused him of cheating. But after Berkman dropped to his hands and knees and vomited in the grass, the coach relented.
"The next day at practice, he was like, 'Did you see the heart that Lance showed?'" Berkman recalled. "He had no idea that I had planned on cheating."
It was Graham, in hindsight, who told Berkman's father that the kid was talented enough to win a major league batting title one day. Berkman has yet to fulfill that prediction, but he's made four All-Star teams and finished in the top seven in the National League MVP balloting four times.
Berkman has a higher career OPS (.983) than Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero and David Ortiz. He also has a better career slugging percentage on the road (.577) than at home (.559), so don't dare call him a product of Minute Maid Park.
2008 Season Stats
One of Berkman's favorite pieces of advice on hitting came during a casual conversation with Jim Thome in Cleveland in 1999.
"When you have guys on base, you better be ready to hit from the time you step in the batter's box," Thome told him. "Because that first pitch may be the only one you get."
While Berkman can work a count like Bobby Abreu, he's just as inclined to grip and rip from the moment he steps in the box. The pitcher who starts him out with a loopy, get-ahead breaking ball is asking for trouble.
Need proof? Berkman is hitting .586 (17-for-29) when he puts the first pitch in play.
Astros hitting coach Sean Berry -- who played with George Brett, Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, among others -- says Berkman is the best he's ever seen at squaring up off-speed pitches. And there are additional, stylistic touches that make Berkman unique, like the way he gently places the bat on home plate before embarking on his home run trot from the left side.
"Everybody tries to copy it, but I don't think they can have their emotions that much in check," Berry said.
Lots of people's emotions are gaga in Houston these days. Cooper used the words "real special," "on fire," "outstanding" and "incredible" (four times) during a five-minute interview about Berkman. When Berkman stepped in the batter's box against Chicago's Ted Lilly in the bottom of the first inning Monday night, he was greeted with a standing ovation.
The message was clear: It's Big Puma time in Texas, so feel free to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
He's not a guy who glides when he runs or things like that. But he knows how to hit. That's the beauty of this game. There's not one way to get the job done, and there's not one way to identify what makes guys great players.
--Tom Glavine about Lance Berkman